Culinary Director at The Plaza and Chef and Partner at the Lambs Club
Geoffrey Zakarian is an Armenian-American Iron Chef, restaurateur, television personality and author. He is the executive chef of several restaurants in New York City, Atlantic City and Miami. He’s currently starring in the Food Network’s top-rated Chopped series.
You’re an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and a very popular TV presence, who makes chefs knuckles turn white on your show. So how did you wind up here?
As you know, there’s a theory that people go into food because they’re very talented, and they’re ethereal, they’re cerebral, they’re artistic. And then there’s the other theory that they’re misfits and sort of don’t feel good enough about themselves and they just fall into it because they need a job. I think I’m somewhere in between that, quite frankly.
Did you love food from early on?
If you’ve ever been in the house with a Middle Eastern family, all they do is talk about food!
Did you work in restaurants when you were young?
I did. I worked in restaurants and in fast food places. But it was just, again, a job. The good thing about me was that I was completely driven by making money. So I was a capitalist early on, and I was bartending even though I was underage. I was working two jobs while I was in high school. And so I just loved the fact that I’d get a paycheck every week and… This was along with living in a very driven-centric family. My mother made everything from scratch. Those two things together were very powerful.
How did you wind up at the CIA?
I left my economics degree behind. I decided to take a trip to France and it lasted longer than I thought it would and I discovered French culture. I really appreciated it. I was 19. I came back and said I wanted to be a chef instead of going to get my MBA in economics. And that was it. That’s how I ended up here. And then I started to work in 1982 in the city, and that was it. I’ve been working ever since.
Tell me about the Lambs Club.
We bought it in 2004 and renovated it for several years. It opened in 2010. We spent a long time and a lot of money renovating it. And it was a very wonderful club. It was built by Sanford White and it was just an abandoned building. Then it became a great hotel, the Chatwal, and we opened the restaurant five years ago. It’s just been a fantastic, iconic place.
What brought you to The Plaza?
My partner and another group of people in 2012 bought The Plaza, so he asked me to try to do my best and renovate a couple of scenarios over there. There’s the food hall, and I’m upstairs.
What was the plan on the Plaza? Did you go in with an idea of what you wanted?
I’ve been in the city for 38 years and I always went to The Plaza. So I thought, let’s make it what it used to be, but let’s make it more relevant. I’m always searching for relevance. It’s a great old building. It had great bones. The previous owners didn’t treat it well. And I just wanted to get back to the food and beverages, get an understanding of what I wanted it to be. Clean it up. Brighten it up. It’s historical so you can’t really do too much to it, though we did change the furniture and the fixtures. We put a huge bar in The Palm Court. We brought it into today’s world. People just want to mingle and have fun and have a great tea experience. We reinvented what it meant to have tea there. And we tried to keep it the historical gem it is, but we wanted, again, to make it relevant for New Yorkers and everyone who passed through there. So that’s my mission, just to make it relevant, not to completely reinvent this.
So does Eloise have a place in there or not?
Eloise does have a place. Although she has tattoos, and she’s wearing earrings.
At what point did you evolve from being a chef to being a brand? And how has that changed your life?
Well, that’s not a foregone conclusion! I think of myself as a chef first. I have been, for over 30 years. My real expertise is still as a chef and a cook and as a developer of clientele. Developing staff, and teaching the staff is what I do best and what I live to do. Everything else on TV is really an extension of what I do, which is teaching people. Now I’m teaching people to watch the show. So, it’s not really any different. I’m very glad to have a much broader fan base, and I don’t just teach cooks now. I teach home cooks. And teachers and housewives, and home-makers and everybody who loves cooking. It’s amazing, especially young people.
How are the amateurs, those who are not chefs, benefiting from what you do?
A lot of young people now are taping the shows that we do. They’re cooking in their houses and actually teaching their parents how to cook, It’s odd. They are not learning from their parents. It’s the other way around now. It’s a wonderful sort of paradise.
So do you think that what’s happened with technology and television is a virtue?
Without question. That never would have happened without Food Network. What technology has done is, it’s allowed people time and the freedom to sit and learn and watch and figure it out.
You’ve written a number of books. You’re involved in consulting for cruise ships. Where does all this play with your brand?
I just try to take what I have and make it relevant, always. So what I’m doing on TV and what I’m doing with my restaurants is very connected. I don’t do things that are disconnected. I only have one thought process. I’m not trying to be someone to one person and something else to my customers. I am always looking to stay within the classical, relevant line of things and just put my spin on things.
And always, whatever I approach with it — the bar, or the front of the house, or the back of the house, a book… a ship — there is always a vein of who I am, running through it. And I try to be very consistent because I can’t explain myself to my core friends. It’s the same with the cookbook and the teaching project. I try to stay with my know-how. I am who I am.
For the full interview with Geoffrey Zakarian visit www.totalfood.com